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BY MANY ACCOUNTS the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a profound manifestation of the American passion for liberty and freedom, a hunger that animated the country literally from the beginning. This depiction is easy to accept. Who doesn't wish to believe in the moral, egalitarian, and democratic origins of one's country? But in this rose-colored tale, we have left out a great deal. The Constitutional Convention, far from being an exalted meeting of the minds, was often a fractious struggle where lofty ideals were subsumed beneath the deep anxieties of America's founders. Here we look past the rhetoric-so far removed from today's politicians and celebratory historians and thus easily romanticized-to focus on the far more mundane but revealing realities of the convention. What we find, again and again, is a desire for economic development that trumped almost all else. For this hodgepodge of not often "united" states, the need to make money demanded a semblance of unity and collective purpose. And toward this end, enormous compromises were made, agreements that would make America an economic powerhouse butone with serious social ills. Economic self-interest and national growth complemented each other from the start.
The Constitutional Convention affords an appropriate beginning for the story of cotton and the black experience in America. While there was no cotton production to speak of at the time, within decades the cotton boom would radically redirect the country and become a virulent example of the oft-repeated American pattern of land speculation, settlement, commerce, and economic vitality. In contrast to cotton, the importance of race was apparent right from the nation's colonial beginnings. North and South alike profited from the importation of African men, women, and children. By the time of the convention, many of the delegates believed that slavery was an essential feature of their state, even if some of them claimed to despise the institution and others believed that the sale of persons would eventually disappear. Thus cotton was not even a part of the consciousness of the new nation while the bondage of human beings soon was very much embedded in the American brain (and ledger sheet). Before long, an insignificant crop would become the engine of the American economy, and the thorny practice of slavery, far from dying out, would become even more vital for the expansion of King Cotton. After slavery, white America obliged cotton with another century of black bondage.
Although the cotton phenomenon was years away, the destiny of blacks in the cotton fields resulted from commercial priorities and racial attitudes that were on display at the Constitutional Convention. Slave-produced cotton would find fertile soil in the commercial and racial world of the Founding Fathers. At the convention the issue of slavery was subordinated to union as the delegates confronted a choice: a nation with slavery, or no nation without slavery. But no one at the convention could envision a cotton kingdom that would spawn delusions of a slave empire.
While Americans are taught to revere the Founding Fathers as statesmen with exalted ideals, these men were earthbound and very much concerned with business and economic survival. The convention was largely provoked not by ideals but by the need to impose order on the commercial chaos that resulted from the government under the Articles of Confederation. At the time of the convention, foreign intervention, squabbling among states, Indian occupation, confusion over land ownership, the lust for more land, and a shortage of settlers hampered economic viability. Despite some prosperity, the Federalists who initiated the convention saw the advantages of a strong central government and the perils of state sovereignty. The priorities, fears, hopes, visions, and obligations of the delegates and the states became clear as the Constitution was forged through debate and compromise.
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Before the Constitution, America's governing document had been the Articles of Confederation, which in 1781 had created a loose association of the thirteen states. The document gave the states supreme power while restricting the central government. Each state had one vote; all measures had to be passed unanimously. The resulting disorder, fragmentation, and competition hampered political and commercial activity. It was state sovereignty run amok, threatening the existence of a fragile union. Foreigners took note of the bedlam. The French diplomat François Barbé-Marbois, an ardent admirer of the United States and a six-year resident, summarized the state of the government under the Articles of Confederation: "There is no Congress, no committee, no President, no minister of any department. All affairs, especially the finances are falling into confusion even worse than in the past." As a result of the chaos, an interstate convention was held in Annapolis in September 1786 to rectify the commercial flaws of the Articles. This commercial convention was the prelude to the Constitutional Convention.
The statesmen who assembled at the Philadelphia State House on May 25, 1787, were aware of America's potential for greatness. They were equally mindful of, and anxious about, the many obstacles that might sabotage the young commercial republic. The need to raise revenues and quell land quarrels, belligerent squabbling over conflicting state laws and policies, Indian threats and the condescension of foreign powers-all these concerns demanded a stronger central government. The delegates also had to grapple with the issue of slavery, which threatened the convention's agenda and hence jeopardized the very existence of the United States. Slavery created a sectional divide that threatened to thwart the convention. James Madison clearly outlined the breach: "... the States were divided into different interests not by their difference of size, but principally from their having or not having slaves.... It did not lie between the large and small States; it lay between Northern and Southern." Madison's motivation for his warning, it has been argued, was his need to divert attention from the big state-small state controversy over proportional representation to another area-sectional strife over slavery. If so, he picked the topic that was sure to create the greatest emotional response.
The sparsely settled colonies and the consequent shortage of workers meant that in the seventeenth century slave labor was ensconced in the economic and social fabric of the Southern states, where it suited the profitable production of staple crops like tobacco, rice, and indigo. By 1787, slavery had proven to be unprofitable in the Northern states, where staple crops were not grown. (At no point in the nation's history were large-scale slave populations used to produce anything other than staple crops.) The census population statistics of 1790 are compelling. Of the roughly 700,000 slaves in America, 642,000 lived in the South, 42,000 in the North. In addition there were 59,466 "free colored" persons. Slaves accounted for approximately 17 percent of the total U.S. population at the time of the Constitutional Convention. A disproportionate 396,463 slaves, or 60 percent of the slave population, lived in the two primary tobacco-growing states of Maryland and Virginia.
But while slaves lived primarily in the South, slavery was a nationwide business. Hundreds of slave ships were based in ports along the East Coast, including Boston and Newport, Rhode Island. The first American slave ship, the Desire, had been built in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1683. An anti-slavery advocate, William Ellery of Rhode Island, in 1791 described his state's attachment to slave trading: "An Ethiopian could as soon change his skin as a Newport merchant could be induced to change so lucrative a trade as that in slaves for the slow profits of manufactory."
Southern slaveholders, no matter their views on the morality of human bondage, were chained to their slaves by economic necessity. George Mason, the Virginia delegate who excoriated slavery and the slave trade, owned more than two hundred slaves. Slaves, he thundered, "produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant; they bring the judgment of heaven on a country.... Slavery discourages arts and manufacturers. The poor despise labor when they see it performed by slaves." Mason, a resident of the largest slave state, blamed the British for introducing the slave trade and also New Englanders, whose "lust for gain embarked on this nefarious traffic."
Yet by 1787 the belief was common that slavery would wither away of its own accord. The long-term health of the slave-grown tobacco business was in doubt. Thomas Jefferson observed in 1781 that "tobacco was fast declining at the commencement of this war, it must decline in return of peace." Tobacco was known to deplete the soil, and a whiff of serious stagnation in tobacco prices had already been detected. The other slave-produced crops, rice and indigo, were small markets.
Thus nothing on the economic horizon in 1787 suggested a massive demand for slave labor. Accordingly, while the price of slaves might be volatile for years at a time, eventually the price would be determined by the profit earned from their forced labor. Without profit or the expectation of profit, slavery could not be maintained exclusively as a social system. Some of the delegates assumed and hoped that slavery would therefore wither away over a period of time. Connecticut's Oliver Ellsworth cautioned against interference, for "Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country." His Connecticut colleague Roger Sherman thought that "the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the U.S." and that the "good sense of the several States" would mean the end of the institution. Later, at the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, James Wilson expressed a similar opinion about the eventual demise of slavery: "and though the period is more distant than I could wish, yet it will produce the same kind of gradual change for the whole nation as was pursued in Pennsylvania." This notion of slavery's eventual death, plus the lack of any immediately foreseeable stimulus for slave expansion, gave the anti-slavery delegates comfort in their decisions to compromise.
Regardless of slavery's future, the priority of the Constitutional Convention was to create a framework for an effective national government. The stakes were high. An uncompromising stance in favor of abolition might destroy the possibility of the union itself. As the historian Edmund Morgan wrote, no one "could insist on abolition. To have done so would have ended the convention." The South's "huge investment" and "vested interest" precluded any practical plan for abolition. What labor system would be used to replace slavery, and what would be done with the former slaves?
As the issues of slavery were raised-the slave trade; how to count slaves in apportioning the legislature; import and export taxes on slave-produced staple crops; the protection provided by fugitive slave laws; and assistance for putting down a possible slave insurrection-most of the demands of the South were met. Abolition, gradual emancipation, equality for free blacks, and the removal of free blacks from America were not on the agenda.
The most emotional condemnation of slavery came from Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania during debate over whether-and how-to count slaves for the purpose of representation in the legislature. In his oft-quoted remarks, Morris called slavery a "nefarious institution ... the curse of Heaven on the states where it prevailed. ... Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote...." Morris also introduced a motion to limit slavery geographically to the "Deep South." Another delegate from Pennsylvania, John Dickinson, proposed that slave importation be banned in states that had already ended the slave trade. Fear of Southern objection doomed both suggestions. Gouverneur Morris's righteous stand was, however, mere rhetoric. A land speculator, Morris ultimately succumbed to the priority of establishing a union, voted for the Constitution, and was largely responsible for its final draft.
Two ostensibly disparate trading states, Connecticut and South Carolina, provided the key support that allowed the Constitution to be approved at the convention. Connecticut certainly had small farmers who tilled its rocky New England soil, but it also epitomized the commercial spirit of the new nation with its fleet of some three hundred cargo ships. It exported cattle, lumber, and foodstuffs to West Indian slaveholders, a trading volume greater than Boston's and equal to New York's. Like all New England states, Connecticut found the ownership of slaves unprofitable but gained from the slave trade and did a thriving business with slaveowners. In 1784 it had passed a gradual emancipation bill. In the 1790 census, Connecticut's population of 238,141 included 2,759 slaves and 2,801 "free colored." Black slaves were thus a tiny 1 percent of the total population. By contrast, South Carolina's population was 249,073, of which 107,094 were slaves and 1,801 "free colored." Slaves made up 43 percent of South Carolina's population. Its trading economy was built on slave labor, which produced its export crops.
The two most important Connecticut delegates were anti-slavery advocates Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth. Sherman, awkward in appearance and attire, had risen from a poor background to become a gifted lawyer, politician, and judge. A "crafty debater," he spoke 138 times at the convention, more often than all but three other delegates. Ellsworth, Yale and Princeton educated, a lawyer and superb orator, generally followed the lead of his colleague Sherman. South Carolina's delegates-Pierce Butler, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Rutledge-were all forceful proponents of slavery and pro-slavery legislation. Rutledge famously highlighted sectional differences by declaring that the interests of the North and South are as "different as the interests of Russia and Turkey."
John Rutledge rejected moral arguments. He asserted that "religion and humanity had nothing to do with ... [the slave trade]. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question is whether Southern states shall or shall not be parties to the union." His fellow South Carolinian Charles Pinckney was equally blunt: "South Carolina can never [support a constitution] if it prohibits the [foreign] slave trade." He softened his remarks by suggesting that South Carolina might "abolish the importation of slaves, as Virginia and Maryland had done." In any event, he observed, it was South Carolina's choice to "do of herself what is wished." In other words, no state or national government could tell South Carolina what to do. The ultimatum had been delivered.
For Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, the priority was to create a union and gain advantage for Connecticut. This called for compromise or, more precisely, concessions to the South. Sherman and South Carolina's John Rutledge discussed a bargain over wine and dinner. Rutledge wanted protection for slavery; Sherman wanted land. Ellsworth, Sherman's protegé, set aside moral issues and followed Sherman's lead. He subordinated his anti-slavery views to other priorities-personal, state, and national. It was said of Ellsworth that he "never missed a chance to make a dollar." Indeed, his financial dealings gave him a strong vested interest in producing a Constitution and a national government. He wanted a commercially prosperous nation in which the economic activities of the states complemented one another: "What enriches a part [of the country] enriches the whole and the states are the best judge of their particular [interests]." Sherman believed that the "public good did not require" prohibition of the slave trade. For him, it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed Constitution. He said plainly that "it was better to let the southern states import slaves ... if they make that a sine qua non." He thought "it best to leave the matter rather than force them out of the union."
Southerners demanded a union with slavery. New Englanders, led by Sherman and Ellsworth, were concerned above all with economic security and growth. They seemed genuinely to believe that slavery would grow extinct over time. And so the deal was struck. Neither equality for free blacks nor even whether they fit in America was ever considered in the constitutional debates.
Excerpted from Cotton and Race in the Making of America by Gene Dattel Copyright © 2009 by Gene Dattel. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 21, 2010
Fantastic book, very informative, it supported what I have always taught to be a fact about the African American influence on America's history and its economic rise to power.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 23, 2014
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